By GREG ANSLEY
Did you hear the one about the bent cop, the footy player and the earless hit man? Roger "The Dodger" Rogerson did, but the humour has started to fade now Australia's most notoriously corrupt detective is back before the courts.
Rogerson, once the glamour boy of the New South Wales police force but now among its darkest stains, has appeared in court in Adelaide on new corruption charges following earlier, separate reports that he was being investigated by the Australian Crime Commission over an alleged heroin ring in Sydney.
All this would be just another sad tale of police misdeeds in a country that has produced too many in the past decade or so, were it not for Rogerson's present line of work: stand-up comedian in a travelling three-man show called Wild Colonial Psychos.
His co-stars are Mark "Chopper" Read, the standover thug and hit-man who has made a living out of creating his own brutal mythology - along the way helping local actor Eric Bana to international stardom through the movie Chopper - and Mark "Jacko" Jackson, a one-time Australian Rules star and B-grade Hollywood actor best known for his battery advertisements in the 1980s.
They do these improbable things well in Australia. But even in a country weaned on the legend of Ned Kelly, Rogerson, Read, Jackson and the Wild Colonial Psychos are something new again, touring the continent regaling audiences with four-letter reminiscences of slapping bullets into people's legs or rectal stabbings in prison showers.
When it was just a duo, Read and Jackson touring by themselves, they had bomb scares and threats and, once, three shots fired into their van as they drove between Geraldton and Leonora, in the remote goldfields of Western Australia.
Rogerson, was having problems after a run-in with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, which took exception to his running a scaffolding business within five years of his release from prison in breach of company law.
Last year, he separately teamed up with Jackson and another former AFL luminary, Warwick Capper, in a similar stand-up show called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Tour. Among the audience spotted by the Sydney Morning Herald at a performance in Rozelle, Sydney, were several underworld stars, including illegal gaming identity Bruce Hardin, alleged big-time drug trafficker Stan "The Man" Smith, and Graham "Abo" Henry.
Henry was a close mate of killer, rapist, drug dealer and armed robber Arthur "Neddy" Smith, both friends of Rogerson, who a decade ago turned snitch and helped the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to compile a new dossier against the former detective and associates in the police armed hold-up squad.
The latest charges against him intriguingly relate to "aiding and abetting the abuse of public office between August 16 and 22, 2002".
It is a tangled trail leading to the Wild Colonial Psychos. For Rogerson, it began in Bankstown, western Sydney, as the son of a riveter who had helped to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He joined the police as a 17-year-old cadet in 1958, becoming one of its most celebrated members until his downfall 30 years later.
"In my day," he told Nine Network's Sunday programme, "the NSW police force was the best money could buy."
At a very public level Rogerson was everything a lawman should be: tough, courageous and effective, going toe-to-toe in a shotgun duel, facing down killers, armed robbers and drug dealers, and helping to track down the Toecutters, a gang of thugs who extracted the proceeds of robberies from other robbers by hacking off their toes with bolt-cutters.
During his career he won 12 awards and commendations. In private, Rogerson was the worst sort of cop. He routinely turned a blind eye to a range of lesser crimes, had no problem with fabricating confessions if they helped to win a conviction, and became too close to some of Australia's worst criminals.
He allegedly protected Neddy Smith and Abo Henry while their gang rampaged through Sydney on a spree of armed robberies, in return for a percentage of the loot, and was later accused of involvement in murder, bribery and heroin importation and distribution.
In 1981 Smith drove a drug dealer called Peter Lanfranchi, on the run for the attempted murder of a policeman, to meet Rogerson in downtown Sydney. It was a set-up: Lanfranchi believed Rogerson was alone, but a squad of police had the area surrounded.
Within minutes, Lanfranchi was dead. The official report said Rogerson shot Lanfranchi twice after the drug-dealer pulled a gun. Lanfranchi's girlfriend, prostitute and anti-corruption campaigner Sally-Ann Huckstepp, said he was unarmed.
A coronial inquiry later found Rogerson had used his gun while making an arrest, but declined to find he had fired in self-defence. Huckstepp was subsequently found dead, floating in a pond in Sydney's Centennial Park.
Rogerson's downfall was an undercover drug-squad detective, Michael Drury, who refused to take a bribe from the corrupt officer in return for not giving evidence in a drug trial. Rogerson was charged, but acquitted, of attempted corruption.
Shortly after, Drury was shot and seriously wounded while feeding his baby daughter. Rogerson was charged with conspiring to kill Drury, but was acquitted.
The evidence against him, however, was chilling. Police alleged he had conspired to kill Drury with a Melbourne hit-man, Chris Flannery, and drug dealer Alan Williams. Williams was an associate of Dennis Allen, a member of Melbourne's infamous Pettingell crime family who, matriarch Kath Pettingill claimed, had dealt in drugs with Rogerson. Rogerson denies the connection.
Flannery disappeared shortly after the bungled hit and is widely believed to have been murdered. "I mean, Flannery was a complete pest," Rogerson told the Sunday programme. "The guys up here in Sydney tried to settle him down. They tried to look after him as best they could but he was, I believe, out of control.
"He didn't want to do what he was told, he was out of control, and having overstepped that line, well, I suppose they said he had to go - but I can assure you I had nothing to do with it."
By this time nothing could save Rogerson. In 1986 he was sacked for a range of misconduct charges, including improper association with criminals, and in quick order was charged with conspiring with Allen to supply heroin and perverting the course of justice.
The case against Rogerson was tight. A protected witness and alleged former girlfriend of Allen under the pseudonym Miss Jones said she had given Rogerson a black bag containing A$100,000 in exchange for another containing about 1kg of heroin in a brief meeting at Melbourne airport. Later Rogerson opened two bank accounts in false names and deposited A$110,000.
He was convicted but later acquitted on the heroin charge.
His conviction and eight-year jail term for perverting the course of justice was overturned on appeal, but in 1992 the High Court ordered the case be returned to the Court of Appeal, which subsequently sent him back to jail.
Meanwhile, Chopper Read was doing very well. Read's history is as famous as it is uncertain, filled with beatings, kneecappings, stabbings, robberies, and as many as 19 killings, much of which may or may not be true. Read regularly recants his admissions, and describes the biographical movie Chopper as "another little fable which in principle resembles my life.
"Once I've got a camera in front of me I should be locked up in a cupboard," he told the Bulletin. "I lie my head off. I could be the minister for propaganda for the Nazi Party or the Communist Party with equal fervour."
But there is no doubt Read was a violent, dangerous man. He did have another prisoner slice off both his ears to force his removal from a high-security block where his life was in danger (hence the nickname Chopper).
His record stretches back to 1971, with convictions for robbery, impersonating a police officer, kneecapping one victim with a shotgun, stabbing another in the neck, and shooting yet another in the stomach.
He burned down a house while a target was inside, tried to kidnap a County Court judge and shot dead drug dealer Siam Ozerkam outside a Melbourne disco, a killing included in Chopper. As in the movie, Read was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.
If he is to believed, Read has maimed more than 50 people with fists, knives, bolt-cutters, blowtorches and guns. In his stage act he recalls shooting the returning officer of the notorious Painters and Dockers Union in the leg to delay an upcoming election, then helping him into hospital, his gun still in his pocket.
But he is also intelligent, charismatic and quick to capitalise on notoriety. He learned to read and write in prison and has since produced a dozen books, a couple of them best sellers - and one a children's fable of injustice in 16th-century Italy called Hooky The Cripple: The Grim Tale Of A Hunchback Who Triumphs - perplexing reviewers worldwide.
Read has also become a regular media commentator on Melbourne's continuing gangland wars and now, with Rogerson and Jackson, a stand-up comic.
Jackson is the odd man out, lacking a criminal past but flourishing in the company nonetheless and making the most of a roguish, locker-room sense of humour that made him stand out as an AFL player and won him the Energiser battery advertising contract that put "Oi!" into the Australian lexicon a long time before the Sydney Olympics.
Jackson also had a pop hit in 1985 called I'm an Individual, made weight-loss advertisements, appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, and starred in an American television action series, The Highway Man.
Said Jackson of the Wild Colonial Psychos: "Maybe it's what's missing from society, where people want to see shooting from the lip, rather than shooting from the hip."